Fiction

Hero

By: Roliena Slingerland 

Photo by Nadi Lindsay on Pexels.com

It’s Friday afternoon. You stand at your bedroom window wondering at the sheer destruction of the Albertan wind as it flips shingles off the roof, its fist plowing through outdoor furniture and throwing any object not lying seamless with the earth. There is a craziness out there; a passion in nature that cannot be bridled. Your heart beats with the thrill of it all. It’s all so unlike mother, the placid little woman downstairs at her Janome sewing machine, her fingers engaged in their mechanical dance. It’s 4 pm. This chaos has lasted twelve hours and your little town has all but shut down, like an injured animal, drawing its limbs inwards. 

University disappeared a few days ago, growing smaller in the bus window, until recollections of the final term are whispers in the breeze. Two years on scholarship, a gap year in Rome, and suddenly it’s over. You have skills, knowledge crammed into your grey matter, and no job.

“It’ll come. It’s only spring. You’ve got time.” Mother lives in the calm surface of life and never ventures into its currents and eddies.   

You visit the local library and explore as one who has all the time in the world. You run your fingers over a childhood favourite: To Kill a Mockingbird and recall the anger and frustration you felt at the wilful destruction of innocence.

Yellowing articles are touched with reverence. “New Year’s Eve Triplets”, an article from before you were born. They must be in their 30s by now – or is it 40s? – fame fading with time.

Then large, smiling eyes pull you in. “Local Girl…” You reach for the article, but your phone rings. 

Mother has a grocery list. 

Back at home the wind continues to throttle the house, and you feel the squeeze of the walls, the stifle of the air, the hum of the machine. You wonder why you even came home. 

And yet, mother. Even though you hate the predictability of life in this house, responsibility has been hammered into you like a nail into fresh wood. She’ll talk about Murray’s false teeth and Mrs. Lucey breaking her hip, all the while her dish cloth fluttering here and there, and you’ll feign interest. She’ll straighten an already wrinkleless table cloth, nudge a pot closer to the centre, her smile reflecting the adage she’s worn to brass tacks: “God is in heaven and all is right with the world.” 

Father has been gone for a few years already, ushered out of this world with a heart attack, not the grand finale he’d been anticipating. Ever since his departure, mother has worked part time at the Extendicare in town. When she’s not working, she’s glued to her sewing machine.

You slam the dresser drawer closed and it catches your finger. The pain pulses with your heartbeat. You suck it hard and whip it about like a rag as if pain can actually be shaken off. The faded walls stare at you. No debate. No intellectual conversation can be found in the swirls of vintage petals. 

University, milling people, The Big City. It all seems so far away now, and something presses upon your throat. 

The phone jangles. You move to the top of the stairs.

Mother’s soft voice. “Lucille.” She states the name matter of fact, silence mushrooming around her. “Yes, of course. I imagine it’s not easy for you, either.” In the vertebrae of light spilling in from the kitchen, you see her instinctively rub her arthritic ankle. “We certainly will do so.” She turns to the machine once again, her foot doing that tap dance; off the pedal, on again. The silver needle lowers and lifts its head in steady, quiet resignation. The hands that nimbly feed material into the machine are freckled, the skin more like parchment paper; her back bowed forward in that gentle curve down which life slides, not budging so much as a strand from the perfectly coiled bun at her nape. 

You want out. Into the headstrong wind; a force you can contend with. There is a pocket of silence between the rages of the wind that you want to slip into. You grab your jacket and head down. “I’m going for a walk to get some fresh air.”

Mother nods, her thin lips a tight receptacle for a sewing pin or two. She dislodges them. “Gretta, would you do something for me?”

“That phone call?”

“Yes. It was Lucille. Her father in the States fell ill and she is helping her aging mother for a bit, and was wondering if we could check in on Mac regular like.” 

Mac Bergen. You’re intrigued. What does he look like as an old man? You wonder if his house smells the same with that hint of bacon grease mingled with cigarette smoke. It will be like climbing into an old playhouse you’ve not visited for years and wondering if time has left it unscathed. 

“I can go.”

The creases on mother’s forehead smooth out. “Good. I knew I could count on you, dear.”  

Mac Bergen lives at the top of the hill, a generous stone’s throw from your home. The little house is a blistering shack, old paint an archipelago of open wounds no one can miss.

But they would. His house is on the edge of town. 

Vietnam war vet and town hero. It doesn’t matter to the townspeople that he is American and not Canadian; that many in his own country felt much less appreciative of the soldiers’ involvement in the Vietnam war. He is a hero after all. He’d come home a little less intact than when he left – two legs in fact. The stumps were long healed by the time you’d come around, but with childish boldness and inquisitiveness, you stroked the thickened skin many times, running your fingers over the uneven patchwork.

This recollection makes your cheeks suddenly warm, and you welcome the cover of dusk.

Father would proudly take him to the Remembrance Day ceremonies in the town square, wheel his chair at first, and then support him on his artificial limbs in later years. Children would swarm around the car. He was an interesting and unique specimen. He’d barely emerged from the jaws of war – a relic from a place and circumstance they could never fathom; seen things no mind could paint.  Father, such a centrifugal force in the community, a solid church going man, would cough up phlegm and nod approvingly as a wide berth was made for them to the cenotaph. Warmth would swell inside of you as you heard snatches of praise regarding your father.

The instant you seal the warm comfort of home behind you, wind lashes at your face. 

You step amongst the wounded. Saplings tremble and bow under the violence; tall trees stand naked, their tender limbs amputated, gaping wounds on fresh bark like skin stripped away. 

Then in the midst of the chaos, a little light winks at you, pulls you forward like something magnetic, even though the wind continues to push you back like an iron fist. The little house is a beacon you’d rush for to get away from the stifling decorum of your home. 

Mac’s the one who’s told you stories with more vigor and color than the storybooks that lined your shelf. He painted the Vietnamese countryside in such bold and brilliant hues, his tongue an expert brush. You hung onto his deep voice as he conjured scenes of valiant soldiers swooping into a war-torn country, into the very mouth of the devil himself, meeting a rush of excited and thankful Vietnamese women, and happy children. And with him and father, you felt safe. Not even the monsters in your dreams could touch you. Your hero would slay them. That he probably embellished a bit didn’t bother you. What did you know of war? He could paint them with whatever brush he wanted and you lapped it up.  

He let you build towers from empty cigarette cartons. He let you make a mess. You could run in the house, your bare feet slapping linoleum. 

You remembered the shine in father’s eyes when he’d found a motorized wheelchair for Mac. And when the artificial limbs finally came in, you weren’t sure who was more excited. The two recounted the news and blasted the government, their favorite subjects. The government was to blame for everything. It did not support its veterans. It threw entire communities into a tailspin on the eve of Y2K. It created hysteria. 

They played scrabble and monopoly. Sometimes you’d join. More often than not, you chased Mac’s cat, Mickey, instead, and lay on the floor on your back, watching the grey haze of cigarette smoke while pretending you were in the thick of battle. Then you re-enacted battle scenes and father and Mac indulged you. You prattled like a chatterbox and no one shushed you. They laughed at your jokes and tickled you until no breath remained. 

Mac always had chocolate milk. Thick and creamy and cold. As it slid down your throat, you often wondered if perfection could get any better.

In high spirits you all returned home; father laughed merrily, you chatting gaily. Mother merely smiled from behind the Janome. She accepted this rhythm to your lives, encouraged it.

***

The gravel drive crunches under your feet. The grass around his house is scraggly; untrimmed bushes, a few aspen trees with skeletal arms raised in a desperate plea to the heavens. The address reads: 65 7. A few metal lawn-chairs, relics from an earlier era, lay toppled, rust-eaten, and bent out of shape. 

You stop at the wooden door. How long has it been since you pushed the door open ahead of father, not even bothering to knock, and sprinted inside? You clutch the cold handle in your hand for a moment as you rap at the door. 

No answer.

Harder.

“Is that you, Lucy?” The voice sounds harsh and scratchy.

You gently nudge the door open and clear your throat. “Mac? It’s me…”

“Who’s me?” The voice demands, wary.

“Gretta.”

“Gretta…Gretta!”

A creak, and then the door moves from your hands. 

His eyes run unchecked over your tall frame. You do the same to him. Is this really Mac? He’s shorter than you remembered, even though he’s in a wheelchair, and skinnier – far skinnier. His skin drapes over him like flesh on a hanger. His grey eyes are tinged with yellow and the deep brown hair replaced by tatters of grey moss.  

“Come in, Gretta girl. For a moment thought Lucille had changed her mind.”

Gretta girl.  A familiar caress.

Nothing seems to have changed. The once bold, striped wallpaper is still yellowed and peeling, while the cloud of grey smoke has taken up residence in the upper quadrant of the kitchen.  A pair of plastic legs laze in a corner; smooth and sturdy and unaged. He’d never grown to like them. The thin, metal blinds are tight and pulled down, coated in greasy fuzz and barricading against any natural light. Cartoonish art still hangs askew on the wall. A simple calendar remains sloppily affixed above the table and serves simply to show the march of days. 

Except for now, there is a faint medicinal smell, courtesy of a battalion of bottles amidst the dishes on the counter.

Mac wheels himself to the table, the mechanical chair drowning him. He moves a chipped glass ashtray overflowing with butts. “Just havin’ tea. Want some?”

“Sure. I’ll get myself a cup.”

He gestures at the same avocado counter.  You suddenly feel at home, your hands easily drawn to the familiar cupboard you’ve opened many times. 

You fill your own chipped cup and sink into an opposite chair. The tea is weak, yet bitter. 

“It’s been long, Gretta girl, ain’t it?” He shakes his head. 

“School, Mac, and…” 

He shakes his head. “Yer livin’ your life. That’s what you gotta do.” He coughs then, a violent paroxysm that seems to overtake him and wring him dry. Spent, he leans back in his chair. “Walt gone, you growed up.” He shakes his head and grabs his box of cigarettes. “Back to your ole’ stomping grounds, huh?” A smile slides over his sallow face.

“Remember my elaborate castles – the cigarette boxes?”

Still smiling, he flicks his hand towards a narrow cupboard. “There’s more in there. Just stuffed them in. For something. Someday.” He throws you a cocky glance, the smile melting. “When they put in them recyclin’ laws, well, I ain’t dancin’ to their song. Tit for tat.” He shakes his head, his fingers trembling as he lifts the stick to his mouth. “So, what ya studyin’?” He smashes a butt on the rim of the ashtray.

“Anthropology. Sociology.”

“What ya plannin’ to do with all those high-falutin ideas yer learnin’?” He hacks again.

You laugh. “Not sure yet. Might be one of those people never done.”

He pulls a fresh cigarette from a dented pack and clears his throat noisily. 

“Here.” You scoop up his lighter and with one deft flick coax out an orange and blue plume. 

He grunts and draws in deeply, like a man refusing to accept the state of his lungs, and coughs again.

“You think maybe, Mac, it’s a bit…”

Intense eyes pin themselves on you. “I hafta smoke, girl. A guy must take the few pleasures he can.”

You can’t really argue there. Somehow, Mac without a grey haze above him seems wrong. You talk about everything and yet not really anything, punctuated by spastic coughs as if there’s a lot of debris inside those age worn bellows he needs to bring up. He parades before you his litany of troubles: restless legs, shot lungs, his inability to sleep at night. You feel like his geriatric partner playing a game of Bingo. Before he can launch into his bowel habits, you want to ask if he remembers the endless chocolate milk, the games you all played, the little girl who ran amok from nook to cranny, giggling and playing her imaginative games. 

But the words crowd your tongue and never make it further. Somehow, an invisible wall seems to have formed around him in the years you’ve been gone that you don’t quite know how to climb over.

After half an hour, you leave. His eyes are getting heavy and he wants to turn in for the night. 

“Do you need…want me to help?” You offer boldly.

He laughs, and for a moment you nestle in the familiar timbre. “Little butterfly, these arms are stronger than you think.”

Little butterfly. You promise to be back.

He simply nods, another cough tearing through him. “I ain’t going anywhere.” 

You go home, carrying with you the image of an old man, of the memories like embers that still flare here and there. 

You’ll resurrect your hero.  

***

The wind is waiting for you. It pushes you home and slams the front door behind you. 

“Gretta?”

Mother stands at the stove, staring expectantly at you. She stirs warm milk, her bedtime drink. “How’s Mac?”

“When did you last see him?”

“I pop in every so often.” She draws in a deep breath. “He’s often listening to the radio, sleeping in his chair. Lucille is a godsend. With my job and this ankle of mine –” 

“He looks so…different.” 

“Heroes age too, Gretta.”

You nod.

“They go to a foreign land, and it takes from them. It – changes them, makes them…” She shakes her head as if trying to clear a thought. “He gave of himself. Left everything behind and went willingly. He is our hero, Gretta, isn’t he?” She wrings her hands, searching your face for affirmation.   

You easily give it, one point you and mother see eye to eye on. “He looks so…”  

“We all get older, frailer. It’s not often pleasant to see.” Suddenly, she bustles about. “Come, let’s turn in for the night. This howling wind sure tires out a body.”

You shake your head. “Soon.”

Mother looks at you, her mouth opening as if she wants to say more, then thinks better of it.

The wind grudgingly withdraws around midnight. 

***

Once a day you wander over to Mac. It’s always weak tea and a stale biscuit. He talks about his aches and pains, blasts the government and its inefficiencies, and shoots down the climate crisis, one cigarette following another with barely an interlude. 

At one point, you ask him for war stories, just like you used to. 

He obliges. At first, he speaks in familiar lyrical tones of honour, of courage, and dignity. You bask in the familiar, the painting of lush, entangled jungles, and towering elephant grass, of rice paddies and strange speech. 

Caught on a wave of curiosity, you probe. You’re no longer a child satisfied with the contours of the forest; you want the veins on the leaves. 

There’s a faraway look in his eyes. “We were in hell and made do. Nature has its ways.” 

You nod though you have no idea. You want to ask what he means, but he doesn’t give you the chance.

He clears his throat and his voice grows stern. “It’s all shadows now. I was a good soldier. I fought for my country. That’s it. Everything else in between is just that.”

He seems to look straight through you. Your skin erupts into gooseflesh. You notice for the first time something in their depths you can’t put your finger to. You know you won’t ask him again. He’s locked it all up and thrown away the key. 

You fight the urge to explore the house you once knew quite well, but you’re no longer a little child with bunny-like energy asked to occupy yourself. 

Instead, empty cans overflowing the garbage command. You find yourself taking out his garbage, washing his dishes. 

He barely notices, often staring out the window. “C’mon, Gretta girl, a game,” he’d order. And you’d oblige willingly: Scrabble, Monopoly; the old game pieces still there. You quickly claim the shoe (not the iron, mind you, it just reminds you of mother and her tiresome domesticity), much smaller than you remember; or maybe, your hand is just bigger, the game boards fading and peeling at the edges, but still useable. You feel déjà vu drape over you, and you can just make out the pleasant jibbing, the laughter ringing around you. You’re on a roll, buying properties left right and centre.

“Piss off!”

You jump, pleasant memories dissolving like sugar in water.

At first, he praises you, cheers you on. But then he starts arguing about the spelling of words, whose move it is. He often forgets what he’s doing, or thinks he’s winning when he isn’t and then sulks. Your own competitive edge is hard to soften; it’s never had to be before; it’s been celebrated then, encouraged. But you’re no longer the child here. More often than not, your own temper flares and it takes everything in you to squash it. You throw in the towel then and let him win in the hopes of catching another familiar grin.

You tease him, try to joke with him, scraping for the joy of former days, the cheesy humor. But the barrel is dry. Whatever echoes from the past might still sound from time to time, seem to slowly fade. 

His nicotine-stained fingers continue to shake and he spills water often, cussing at himself until you clean it up. 

“Walt and you lived here practically,” he flings, as if it were an imposition. You just won a game with no effort. “Good ole’ Walt. Here he came alive.” His laugh sets off another coughing fit. “He needed me.”  

Needed him?

He looks up knowingly from his cards. “We had a good arrangement.” And then he laughs again. 

“I know. Father working here, taking care of you. Those were good days, Mac…”

“My little butterfly,” and he chuckles, shaking his head. “Flittin’ around, not a care in the world.”

And that’s it. Little snippets of memory you come back for like a starved dog, rifling through the pieces for the ones that resonate. But the images seem nuanced.  Maybe it’s just that you’re peering through the lenses of adulthood, but deep in your belly, something jars – something that seems to slip away when you try to probe it like one of those slippery specimens in a petri dish. 

Then Lucille is back.

Suddenly it’s you and mother again. You listen to music to drown out the whir of the machine. You read and paint and paint some more; the coulees around you, the endless Albertan sky, the elm trees. Your brush is always painting more than what’s there: brighter colours, Saskatoon berries that hang like fresh jewels, a little girl running freely, her blonde ponytails streaming behind her like ribbons. You drink wine – too much wine – and try not to crawl up the walls. 

And then just as suddenly, it’s all over.

Lucille stands at the front door a few weeks later, a plump woman with ginger hair wrested into a bun at the top of her head, her doughy arms crossed in front of her in that business-like manner. Mac’s cancer is back. His lungs are shot. Her father is getting sicker and her hands are tied.  “Now look, you’ve been practically family.” Her voice is nasal and whiny. “I’ve done my time,” as if she’s finished a stint in jail. I can’t do this on my own. I know you’re working, Janet, but rumor has it Gretty is home for a bit,” she jerks her head in your direction.  

Gretty. You pucker at the sound of it.

One look at mother and you know the hook has snagged flesh. “Of course, Lucille.”

 “‘Sides, ain’t nothing better for that man than a face in the spring of its life.”

Of course, you agree, but for reasons mother and Lucille couldn’t possibly know.

***

Mac is sleeping, his thin form stretched out on the faded blue recliner. 

“Let me give you the lay of the land,” Lucille smiles and pauses dramatically. “Did you see that?” She winks conspiratorially. “Lay of the land. War speak, Stuart always said,” one hand on hip as she blows a tendril of flaming hair from her mouth. “Now dear, you will need to slowly begin feeding him; his hands are beginning to shake more. You’ll also need to toilet and bathe him.” 

You swallow.

She places her hands on her hips. “You young’uns know nothin’. I had to do it for my Stuart. Simply breathe through your mouth, and put your thoughts elsewhere. Be careful not to mix his medication, and to carefully follow the instructions.” 

You stare at her and at the mountains popping up all around you.

Lucille’s face softens then. “You look like you’ve seen a ghost. He’s dying. Slowly. It’s a waiting game now.”

You feel that pull in your gut. “What about chemo?” You scramble. 

“He doesn’t want it. Said the toxic chemicals are one way for the government to cleanse the population. He’s made his choice and has a right to that. I’m not a body wantin’ to interfere. Lucky for you, his pain’s not that bad. But just in case, he’s got these.” Her hand sweeps over his panoply of meds. 

“Hopefully it’ll not be long. He’ll sleep a lot. I’ve stocked the cupboards. Puree his food like. Gut issues. Blender’s in there,” she points at a corner cupboard. “Let him smoke as many as he likes. Now’s not the time for moral platitudes, though,” she patted her cheeks, “my sinuses despise it.” 

You’ve never had an issue with cigs.  The girls at Uni handed them out like candy. Now mother is another story…

Lucille drops her voice to a whisper. “And no hospital.” She pulls back with a prim look to her face, lips pressed together knowingly. “Hates the place.”

“Likely the war. And those legs,” you gesture at the plastic limbs that have not moved an inch. 

Lucille shrugs. “All I know is he hates the place. My Stuart went there and he died, you know? That was it. When them doors sealed behind him, I just knew in here,” she patted her generous bosom, “that he wasn’t coming out of that anymore.”

It is no jaunt, but you fall into a new rhythm. You devote hours at the side of your childhood hero, stare at his sleeping frame until you can almost see the dark brown hair, the laughing grey eyes, the rich booming of his voice. You read the daily paper to him, help him with crosswords, talk about the subjects that interest him. At first, he does not sleep much, despite Lucille’s projections. His mind is fuzzy at times. During his lucid moments, you catch glimpses of the old Mac in his jokes, some timeworn and familiar, others new and appalling; and like some picky eater, you par the fat from the bone, and savor the light-hearted voice that’s become so sparse. 

You play endless board games. It’s all he wants, but it keeps your hands busy. You listen to an inane prattle that grows increasingly incoherent. He calls you a Vietnamese pig when his temper flares. You feed a dying flame while at the same time dousing it when it shoots higher than you can handle.

You don’t tell mother of the decaying shell in the easy chair. Of the rank breath, the vile tongue. Of another cancer that seems to have infiltrated him, its vine-like tentacles twisting through and around his soul. 

One day you hold a spoon to his cracked lips.

“Nature has its ways.”

“Mac?” There is a faraway look in his eyes. 

“You do what you need to do.” He shoves the spoon away. 

Was this really the man who opened his home and hearth to the searchers when sixteen-year-old Maissey Jenkins went missing? She’d been spotted last in this very area wearing a dusty rose dress with a pink, flowing sash; she liked to dress up. People said the community rallied like never before with Mac and father at the helm. The coffee flowed strong and free then. The Kingsman wood stove crackled pleasantly. It was such an exciting time from the perspective of a young girl. Mother tried keeping you home. After all, someone’s child was missing and hers could be next. 

“She’s learning about how the community works together,” father argued. Mother then quietly agreed. 

You all spilled into Mac’s bottom level. It was cozy, smelled of coffee and cigarette smoke. All familiar, like a warm hug.

“Here’s what we’ll do,” Mac said to the officer in charge. “I’ll open my home to citizens who want to help with the search. Got some good flashlights and bottomless coffee. We can meet there.”

Maissey had run away from home once before. A flighty girl with developmental delays. “Special” was the word tossed around then. But you thought of her as special in the way one views a treasure; something unique and precious. Only years later, you realized they’d meant something altogether different. 

They would find her. The spring weather had been mild. The officer nodded his acceptance. “We need volunteers to comb this area. Come across evidence, footprints, anything even minor, please do not touch and get a hold of one of my men as soon as you can.” 

Nothing turned up. And then a violent deluge hit the area; whatever evidence was to be stumbled across yet, was washed away. 

Then Maissey’s father came to your door one evening. Like a little interloper, you crouched at the top of the stairs to catch a glimpse of the desperate man.

“Look, Walter, she ain’t run away. Was gonna talk to you. Said something terribly weighty was on her mind. Wouldn’t tell me. Said she could deal with things herself.” 

Father smiled gently. “I am terribly sorry, Mr. Jenkins, but I’ve never met Maissey.”

“Somethin’ was bothering her. She needed you.” You remember the raw pain on his face, the way he clung to the fragile thread of hope. Your body was so stiff with expectation. You remember feeling so deflated alongside him.

He never stopped by again. 

You recall the conversation between mother and father through the upstairs radiator weeks after the case was tentatively closed. “What’s Jenkins getting at, Walter?”

“It’s grief, Janet. Does strange things to the mind.” 

Mother’s voice was soft. “But you knew her.”

“What are you talking about?” You feel his irritation; mother reminds you of someone perpetually picking at a scab.

“I saw you talk to her one afternoon. I was coming back from the grocery store and you were talking to her on the sidewalk.” 

“I don’t remember. I talk to many people. Do I have to tell you everything, Janet? When I go to the washroom…?”

Mother said something. You strained to hear.

The sudden crack on flesh made you jump and you scrambled to bed, to the safety of your comforter, deep underneath where any sounds could be muffled. And you drifted off.

In the morning, the surface was smooth as glass. The smell of bacon permeated the air. Father puffed on his pipe and listened to the CBC, following the events of the Gulf War. Mother’s sewing machine whirred and whirred. That time you didn’t mind it too much. You played with your dolls. You can feel it now. The fondness swirling through you with such warmth; the arguments under the radiator seemed like dramatic scenes from some fiction. Father was too kind to be that person; mother too quiet to be one with questions. Perhaps your imagination colored your nights so vividly, your dreams so dramatic and real, that you wove them into reality. Maybe you’d been peering into a different universe.

But now you know differently. Discordant notes have crept into a familiar melody. 

Mother looks up when you enter. “Just in time for dinner; it’s potatoes and gravy and my prize string beans. Just a few stitches and Helen Judd’s blazer is altered.”

You drop into a chair, not feeling the least bit hungry. “When?”

Mother’s small foot poises above the pedal. The needle ready for her command. “I don’t understand.”

“When?” You demand again, vibrations building in your belly. “When did you die?” 

“Gretta, what are you saying?”

“Those albums, in your room. I saw them.”

“What about them, Gretta?” Deep furrows line her forehead. 

“You’re nothing like that woman then. You were alive.” One afternoon, you’d come back before your mother’s return from Extendicare. Plopping on the floor in front of the living room bookcase, you plucked out an album that seemed unfamiliar. Grainy, sepia images, their edges curling with time, showed a woman brimming with vitality. In the gestures, posture, the way people acted around her, she was an unabashed woman with feeling and opinion. 

“I was a young, flighty thing then, Gretta.”

“The radiator. I heard it all. You let him hit you.”

Mother’s hands slide from the machine, and she gets up. “Why now, Gretta?”

“Why couldn’t you be that happy, adventurous person? Father had to go to Mac to get away from you – from this – this perfection!” Your throat burns.  

“Please, Gretta,” she begs, grabbing for your arm. “I can’t imagine what’s gotten into you. We change. We make do. You don’t understand. Sometimes it’s best to leave things alone.”

It’s a familiar tune. You want to pick further at it, but sudden fatigue crowds you. 

For the first time you feel like an outsider looking in.  

You lay in bed that night, a foot pressing on your chest. Rolling over, you dangle your arm off the bed, running your fingers over the cold, metal radiator. It’s quiet. Then the familiar “clang” as heat rushes through. 

You wake up in the middle of the night. Darkness outside your window gapes like an open mouth ready to consume. Little butterfly resounds over and over in your mind. 

The words suddenly taste bitter on the back of your tongue. 

***

Mac sleeps most of the day, if you can call it that. He twists and groans, mutters and cusses. When he is awake, the radio absorbs him.

There are crosswords to complete, and images to paint on small canvases in the confines of the kitchen. Here you can put distance between Mac and his tirade at whatever radio announcer is getting his goat. The pickings are not slim.

“Thao!” He shouts at one point.

“Thao – What?” You jump up, paint dripping over the table. He’s sitting in his recliner, using his twig-like arms to push himself up. “Mac…”

“Git over here,” he leers. Your skin crawls as his clawed fingers grasp your shirt with surprising strength. “You know you want it.” A button pops off as revulsion fills you.

“C’mon, Mac,” you struggle to unclench his fingers.

He’s undeterred, spittle forming at his mouth.

“Mac, stop it!” You shove his hands away. “It’s me!”

He blinks as if to clear away a mote and recognition dawns. “Gretta.” He slumps back. “I need a drink.”

“I’ll get you some water.”

“No, no,” he grows agitated again. “Drink. Give me the real stuff.”

Then one afternoon during a nap, his eyes pop open for a minute. They are wide and yellow and fearful.  “It burns, it burns!” He hits his stumps, fumbles at them. Then his arm jerks, and his eyes slide shut. One final moan and he’s quiet. 

Your body shakes as you walk back to the kitchen. There they stand, an army of medication. Enough to end it for him. 

Then a sudden drop in your gut. You feel horrified the thought has even crossed your mind, and you swiftly turn away.

***

On Sunday, mother and you go to church. There kitty corner from you sits Adam Jenkins, Maissey’s father. He’s stooped and grey. The light streaming in from the stained glass next to him casts a halo over his head. 

Where is Maissey? Where has she been all these years? Did she wander off on her own? Run away? 

Back at the house you ask mother: “Remember Maissey?”

Mother’s brows furrow as she hangs up her jacket. “You remember her? You were so little. I haven’t heard that name for so long.”

“Father did something to her, didn’t he?” 

She moves against the wall, a skewered moth, wings flapping. “What on earth do you mean, Gretta?”

You share the moment at the radiator.

Mother’s lips pinch tight and she turns away. Her voice is strangled. “He was an upstanding, church going man, and I’ll not have you…” 

“Why did she need to see him?”

“She shouldn’t have been out there alone at night!” She bursts out. “Girl was always too friendly; a bit of a simpleton.”

You remember others having said that. Very developed girl, a bit slow, too friendly. “Why are you protecting Father? He’s gone now, Mother. He can’t hurt you anymore.”

“Oh, Gretta, you could always push so. Sometimes it’s better to let things lie.” She draws in a deep breath and makes a beeline for the coffee pot. Something is lurking in those green eyes. Pain? Fear?

“Hiding the truth doesn’t alter it, Mother.”

“And picking at it doesn’t help either!” The coffee pot shakes in her hands, old brew sloshing against the glass wall. “He got carried away under his drink one day.”

“He raped her?”

Mother flinches as if she’s been slapped.

“The world doesn’t stop outside of the church doors, Mother.” 

She turns around. “He only hit me when he drank. When he went to Mac’s he no longer got drunk at home. He left me alone. He was happier. With the drink – then it was not really Father, but someone different –.”  She shook her head. “He confessed he got a bit bold one day, but that was all he did. I forgave him.”

A bit bold? “His crime was not yours to forgive!” 

***

That night you dream of huddled women with dark eyes, their pain reaching deep into your soul. Mouths opening in silent screams as small hands press tattered clothing to near-naked frames.

Then you see him on the floor. He flails his blistered leg, his head jerking back in an angry scream. A bottle lies at his side, dripping, fumes biting your nostrils. 

You reach for him. But his angry eyes pin you back. 

Mac.

Then sobbing behind you. You turn…

Suddenly you are in your bed. Damp sheets twist around your body. The sobbing continues. You look around. 

The radiator

The floor is cool. Your legs shake and you nearly fall.

It’s quiet as you slink down the stairs, moonlight saturating the kitchen.

Then you see it. Sidelined on the floor like some wounded animal, a deep scratch in its cool white skin. You pick it up and set it on the table. You plug in the cord and press the pedal. Obediently, the needle dips. 

For the first time you see in it that force of stability and security mother has always clung to.  

***

A few days later, you move in with Mac to give him round the clock care, but like a burr, the memory of Maissey sticks to you. 

During long hours, you roam his house, looking for the fragments of what once was. You feel like you’re exploring foreign territory; the home of a man you never really knew – a man in the clutches of something you can’t define. Everything seems to fall apart like a flimsy card structure. Perhaps the old Mac is simply an illusion you cling to with childish innocence. Everything about him repels you, and yet you keep searching like a blind woman, seeking for what was. 

You find the familiar dartboard. It hangs askew on the wall, smaller than you remember, and much less grand. The carpet is still thin and orange and musty. Stingy rays of sunlight pour through a small window. There is a low table and two beaten-up floral couches. The small Kingsman sits cold as it has for years since Mac procured space heaters for the upstairs. Stacks of National Geographic sit shoved against a wall, a layer of dust obliterating most of the words on the top cover. The walls are deep brown panelling, stained and musty. Here and there you pick out a familiar scratch and little thrills surge through you.

How did you all fit into this small room – the helpful townspeople? Father and Mac? And you, of course. You’d frolicked with childhood abandon; the only child there, adored and cheered on. Heat suddenly flames your cheeks. Children can be so self-centred in their innocence. Against a backdrop of an unfolding crisis, you twirled and twirled. Maissey bobbed at the edges of your mind; there, but unseen.  

Suddenly, a ray of light catches something bright on the floor next to one of the couches, splintering around the object. You drop to your feet. Nestled in the carpet lies a small diamond earring. 

You pick it up and examine it closely. There’s something familiar about it. Perhaps all those years ago, one of the townspeople had lost it, and it lay here for years unnoticed until now. 

You turn it in your fingers. 

***

At the library you pour over newspapers dating back to the nineties. Suddenly, you stop. That face – those smiling eyes! Then you find it. April 10, 1995. The yellowed paper shouts: “Local Girl Disappears”. You look closer. There is a distinct braid looped at each side of her head. The image is the one you remember – the one catalogued in your mind – the one you’ve visited over the years – the latest one Jenkins has of her that was plastered all over the news then. Maissey stands with head tilted, in her dusty rose satin birthday dress (dusty rose, all the rage then), complete with pink sash. With a trembling hand, you lay the diamond earring at her ear. 

Your stomach drops to your toes. They’re the same. 

***

One afternoon, you stand at the top of the stairs leading into the basement. 

You retrieve the earring from your pocket and play with it. The next thing you know, you’re downstairs again.

You remember something. You’d been having a jolly time that evening, dancing from one end of the room to the other. Agitated voices all around. No one paying attention to your energetic twirls. And then you fell. No, tripped. Over something. Mac had just called the party upstairs to begin the search as everyone was ready, and the obedient troop followed him up. Father swooped you off the floor, muttering: “Those two left feet, Gretta, those two left feet,” and followed the group up.

You’d been hurt at his reference to your lack of grace, not the carpet burns on your knee. You instinctively reach down to rub your knee. 

The carpet! 

You drop to your knees by the one couch you’d danced beside. There is an odd fold in the rug, as if it’s not been stapled to the floor. You realize now you’d likely tripped over it.  

Tugging at the carpet, you pull up along one seam. The couch. You need to move it. Adrenaline courses through you and your arms seems to buzz. The heavy oaken furniture with the burnt orange and floral fabric is heavy, but you summon all your strength. 

Your heart flits around like some frenzied moth, but you’re not sure why. This is just some musty hole now, with little light, where you’d once been the life of the party. The carpet groans with reluctance as you hoist it back, wanting to fold into the stiff shape it’s held for years. A cloud of dust billows up, and the musty smell is more pronounced. 

A large section is folded back. Staring back at you is a simple trap door. You kneel down and rub your hands over the smooth wood and chew your lip. Perhaps those who’d owned the house before Mac had stored treasures down there. Perhaps it’s nothing more than crawlspace and dirt. 

And yet, a heavy feeling drapes over you, a feeling you can’t shake off. 

Before you know it, the trapdoor yawns like an arthritic jaw. It remains open at a ninety-degree angle. You peer into the hole. Darkness. 

You should close it again, allow the carpet to jerk back into its unnatural pose. 

But something nags at you. You feel in your pocket for Mac’s lighter, the one you carry with you in case he needs a flame. Sweaty fingers flick the metal wheel once. Twice. A reluctant flame jumps out. Your heart jerks. You place your one hand onto the edge of the hatch. The flame trembles as it is lowered, its orange light stabbing the dark. Darkness scurries, revealing a rickety set of steps angling downwards. 

Something is there. Caught on the steps. You lean closer, trying not to fall in. 

Your heart lodges in your throat. Hanging down from one of the steps is a piece of fabric caught on a splinter of wood.

You reach deep and yank it free. Sitting up, the ceiling reels above you. 

The fabric burns in your fingers and you take in a deep breath. Clutched in your hand is a long, pink sash. 

Maissey Jenkins. 

How – why? 

Somehow you close the door to the bowels of the house, let the carpet fall back with a groan. 

You creep up the stairs on legs made of jelly and collapse on a kitchen chair.

Somewhere in the distance you hear him calling over the roar in your ears. You can’t move.

He calls again. 

Your body won’t stop shaking.

And then again; a voice weak, yet demanding. 

You realize you are squeezing the sash.

You crawl as it were to his room. 

“Mac.” 

Like a magnet, his jaundiced eyes make for the sash. Something flickers. 

He knows. He’s always known. 

“It was – it was in your crawlspace.”

He closes his eyes. 

“Mac!” You cannot let him slip into the void. “It’s not true – she’s not…”

“It’s time.” His eyes remain closed.

“Time?”

“To die.” A rush fills your ears.

“Mac?”

“The pills.” His breathing is laboured. Pain squeezes his face. “Give ‘em to me.”

You’ve come this far. “Maissey. Maissey Jenkins, Mac. It was – it was in your crawlspace, on the ladder.”

He opens his eyes. “In the kitchen, there are enough meds…”

“ – No, Mac!”

“You need to.”

Your eyes leak, hot and burning. “First, tell me about Maissey. Please, Mac.”  

He turns his head. “Stupid girl,” he rasps. “She wanted me to help her. To get at Walt. To expose him. He just got carried away. She was gonna ruin him; make it more than it was.” He closed his eyes for a moment, then: “She couldn’t let it be.” 

At that moment it hits you. It was never father you looked up to; it was really Mac. You cling to a strand of hope: maybe you can stitch together the old narrative of the hero.

“She came. To the house.”

Your heart hangs there by a thread.

“I told her to come down.” 

“Mac?”

“I strangled her.” 

And just like that he severs the thread. “Please, Mac!”

“Such an innocent. Your world of bubbles and wrap and castles and glory. And God. It’s every man for himself.” The glint is back. The hardness around the pupils. That cold look that remains if all else is stripped away. Nothing can soften it. It knows; it’s been to the other side. 

You swallow down the bile rising in your throat. He’s been dying all along, and it’s not the cancer that you think about.

“The meds. Give them to me, butterfly.”

Butterfly. 

Something finally tears loose inside you, leaving a gaping hole.

You cover your ears and turn, stumble out of the house. Into the darkness, clutching the sash against you.

“Mercy, Mercy, Mercy!” The wind shrieks after you. 

He expects relief at your hands. Mercy. “I’m not God!” You clench your teeth.  

You run then. Pain comes off you in hot waves. You run until your legs are rubber. 

Then fall to the ground. 

Lungs burn. Heart slams against soft earth.

Everything a house of cards, carefully constructed. 

Until you pulled out a card. 

***

Thick blue and red beams sweep away darkness.  Sirens pierce the night.  

Mother’s small hand supports you.

They are coming for him; she told you so. 

Taped to him is a plastic bag, just out of reach. In it they will find a pink sash, a diamond earring, and a simple note: In the crawl space of this house, you will find the remains of the woman I murdered: Maissey Jenkins.

Categories: Fiction

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